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Article and Photographs by Marty Bink

Holiday Fun

It has become a tradition at this time of year for Green with Envy to turn a little red. Red is such a powerful holiday color, and there are quite a number of ways to bring a splash of red into one’s environment.
During December, the most common way to find red among our growing ornaments is to display a poinsettia. In the United States, the poinsettia is the traditional Christmas flower. So, in keeping with the spirit of the season, this month’s installment of Green with Envy looks into the secrets of the poinsettia’s tradition and offers some information on how to maintain the joy of the poinsettia’s beauty from season to season.
Why Christmas?

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a flowering shrub native to Central America and Mexico. The showy flame-red “petals” that we so closely associate with the holiday season are actually modified leafs called bracts. The purpose of the bracts is to attract pollinating animals to the compact flower at the center of the bract bunch. Even though red is the most recognized variety, poinsettias bloom in white, pink, and yellow with variegated (“marble”) varieties as well.

The poinsettia owes its close association to Christmas to one particular growing habit. The poinsettia is a short-daylight bloomer. That means that as the nights get longer and cooler, the shrub is pushed to display its bracts and to bloom. These conditions are generally found in late November to mid-December in its native environment. Because the blooms of the poinsettia last anywhere from four to ten weeks, the bright flowers are in full color around the 25th of December.

Legend has it that a small, poor Mexican girl named Pepita began the Christmas tradition of poinsettias. The story holds that Pepita was walking to mass on Christmas Eve and was distraught that she had no gift to present to the Christ Child. Her cousin Pedro assured her that any gift given in love was equally extravagant in His eyes. The only gift Pepita could find on her walk to the chapel was a small bouquet of dead flowers and weeds she gathered from the roadside. Upon entering the chapel, Pepita was so embarrassed by the meagerness of her gift she began to cry. However, she was so moved to honor the

Christ Child that she approached the nativity scene to lay her gift at the foot of the Lord. As the dry mangled mass left her hand, the dead blooms burst into brilliant red flowers. All who witnessed the event believed they had seen a miracle, and from that day forth the Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night) have represented the spirit of giving.

The tradition migrated to the United States in the early 1800’s. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the time was an avid botanist. He collected some samples of the poinsettia plant and propagated them in his greenhouses in South Carolina.

Soon thereafter, the ambassador began giving specimens of his plants to friends during the blooming season, and the tradition of the Christmas poinsettia began in the U.S. Oh, by the way, the ambassador’s name was Joel Roberts Poinsett…the namesake of the Christmas flower. Poinsett is further tied to the flower bearing his name in that Poinsettia Day is December 12th…the day of Poinsett’s death.
Even though Poinsett began the tradition, holiday decorating with poinsettias did not become popular until the early 1900's. The Paul Ecke nurseries of southern California began mass-producing and distributing poinsettias shortly after the turn of the century. With their increasing availability, poinsettias became a household tradition across the country. Today, poinsettias are a Christmas-time tradition in other countries as well.

The Spirit of Christmas…All Year Long

Poinsettias make excellent centerpieces on the table and decorative accents in the home. Mixing and matching varieties of poinsettias or with other cut flowers brings a breath of life to drab winter days. They can be used anywhere in the home to add a bit of color and holiday cheer. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not extremely poisonous. Eating a few leaves may give one an upset stomach. However, one would have to eat about 300 bracts in order to receive a dangerous dose of toxin.

Special care should be given to the plants in order to maintain their appeal. The unusual blooming habits of the poinsettia underscore its overall finicky growing habits. In general, poinsettias need to be maintained at a temperature between 60°F and 70°F in bright indirect light. They should be kept away from excessive heat and from drafts (hot or cold). In addition, poinsettias grow best when the soil is allowed to dry between waterings. Root rot from overwatered plants is common threat to poinsettias.

As finicky as they are, poinsettias are also resilient and will respond well to corrective changes in the environment. So, if your poinsettia appears to be wilting, changing location or giving it a bit of water may be all that is required to rejuvenate it.

The beauty and enjoyment of poinsettias does not have to end when the holiday decorations are vanquished to their place of hibernation. Because poinsettias can hold their blooms for almost three months, they will continue to brighten your home until about Valentine's Day. (Hmmmm… Valentine's poinsettias as a new tradiiton?). Even then, poinsettias can remain a part of one's growing décor.
In the subtropical climates of the southern United States, poinsettias can be planted in the landscape. The shrub will reach as much as ten feet high and provide a brilliant outdoor display in winter. In other areas where winter is not severe but there are occasions of frost, poinsettias can be planted in

outdoor containers and then protected from the elements when weather becomes severe. Even in areas where winter is cold and long, poinsettias can be kept from year to year and made to rebloom. Keep in mind that reblooming is not easy and some guidelines must be followed. However, the reward of fresh new Christmas blooms is worth the effort.

The first step in reblooming a poinsettia occurs as the old blooms begin to die. The dying bracts and blooms should be cut from plant as soon as they begin to wilt. This usually occurs in February or March. You will want to fertilize the plant with a balanced fertilizer at this time as well. Keep the plant indoors in an area of optimal conditions (that is, the same conditions as you would a blooming plant) and continue to water it. New growth should occur during this period. Once the outdoor low temperatures are above 55°F (usually around May), you can place the poinsettia outside. During the summer growing season, the plant can be pruned to shape and repotted if desired. Poinsettias should be repotted in a pot no more than four inches larger than the current pot and in good soil with high organic content. Also, maintain a constant schedule of watering without overwatering.

In the fall, you will need to prepare your plant for the blooming cycle. This is the crucial time for successful rebloming. Exact timing of the photoperiod (amount of sunlight) for the plant must be maintained in order to get the plant to bloom around Christmas time. At the beginning of October, bring the plant indoors where the plant should be kept in complete darkness for 12-14 hours a day, be given bright sunlight for six to eight hours a day, and maintained at a temperature range of 60°F to 70°F. Complete darkness can be achieved by placing a large black garbage bag over the plant. A constant watering schedule should be maintained, and the plant should be fertilized during this time. Any variations to this procedure may delay or halt the blooming for the season, but with a little attention and effort, you should be able to coax the spirit of giving from your poinsettia.

Now Get Out There

This holiday season decorate your life with the gift that keeps giving. Poinsettias are a colorful tradition that can brighten your home season after season. So, if you get yourself a few plants or someone else gives you a poinsettia, don't discard them when the holidays end. Continue to enjoy the returning gift of poinsettias, or better yet, give the joy of Flores de Noche Buena to others.